Most of us have a grueling view of productivity – getting things done at work is a daunting task and it's best to put our nose to the grindstone and churn it out. We hear experts tell us how to rigidly structure our calendar to make time for the serious work of completing a project or task. We are told that, when it comes time for serious work, we need to shut off our phones, close our doors and switch off our email function – better yet unplug the Internet connection entirely. While this approach may be true in certain circumstances, it’s possible that occasional, well-timed interruptions might actually enhance the quality of our work – especially when that work is creative.
A team of researchers led by Sophie Ellwood wanted to examine the effects of a short break on individual creative output. Ellwood and her team assembled 90 undergraduate psychology students and divided them into three groups. Each group was tasked with completing an Alternate Use Test – a common measurement of divergent thinking. Each group was given four minutes to think of as many possible uses for a sheet of paper as they could, but how those minutes were structured varied. The first group was able to focus on the problem for four continuous minutes. The second group was stopped at the two minute mark and asked to complete a different but similar creativity test, before being given their last two minutes to focus on the uses of paper. The last group was also interrupted, but instead of a related test, they were asked to complete the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which was considered unrelated to the creativity test.